“Can you hear what they’re saying?”
There is nothing more terrifying than being 9 years old, having your pilot take out his hearing aide, hold it to the navigation radio, and utter those words. You soon realize the airplane currently serving as your gateway to the sky has abruptly, and without warning, begun to turn sideways. Then, as if you weren’t already in shock, the door flies open. Rushing wind. Rickety panels. That sinking in the pit of your stomach. Well this can’t be good. What next? A nosedive, hurling ever so close to the landscape far below? Surely the end is near. There’s no way we’re getting out of this one, right? Then, like an answer from above, the plane levels out and the door closes. Everything is back to normal. Well, everything other than the jubilant cackles of an older gentleman laughing from the front of the plane. It’s enough to make any kid have trust issues with pilots indefinitely. Unless, of course, that pilot was the beloved “Five Dollar Frank.”
Frank Thomas, nicknamed “Five Dollar Frank” for his highly economical fee of only $5 per trip, flew tourists and locals alike on sightseeing excursions of the New River Gorge for years. Thomas became a local celebrity in Fayetteville for his charismatic nature and mischievous pranks. However, he was probably most noted for his plane, a Cessna 172.
His path to aerial adventure started around World War II. Though he never served time in the military, Thomas found airplanes were simply “his thing.” There are many tales of hijinks such as the one detailed above from our very own AOTG administrative assistant, Michelle Rodriguez. Known for practical jokes, Thomas was also one of the few people to fly a plane under the New River Gorge Bridge. He wanted guests to walk away with an experience to share the world over.
Sadly, Thomas passed away in 2001 leaving behind quite the legacy of flights and delights. Personally, I never rode shotgun with him in that Cessna 172, childhood fears getting the best of me. However, I grew up only a few miles from his airport and seeing that wobbly old plane glide over my house multiple times a day was just part of life.
Though it’s difficult to picture anyone else bringing Frank’s airport to life the way he did, recent years have proven that theory wrong. From sky diving to bi-planes, Frank’s former airport is once again thriving, but more on that later. This is the time to celebrate a unique individual who brought his passion to the masses.
Want to know more about Five Dollar Frank? Search for him on YouTube. There are several superb videos featuring his midair escapades, and here’s a particularly good one of Frank reciting poetry Shakespeare would envy.
For something a little more in depth, hear it from the man himself in the book It Is This Way With Men Who Fly, by Frank T. Thomas documenting his life and his legacy in the airways high above our land of adventure.
And if you want to fly now… maybe even barnstorm a loop or two… check out Wild Blue Adventures for a once-in-a-lifetime flight over the New River Gorge in a World War II bi-plane!